Duane Michals "Portraits" at Crocker Museum, Sacramento, 2018

Duane Michals: The Portraitist
Crocker Art Museum

It’s an era of celebrity worship—and, with Instagram selfies, of democratic self-aggrandizement—so the timing of this large exhibition of Duane Michals’ photographic portraits of our cultural royalty, with a few commoner friends and relatives thrown in, could not be better timed. “Portraits,” curated by Linda Benedict-Jones, and presented by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, features more than 125 photos—“recently discovered by the artist in his New York apartment,” according to the museum press materials.  Old and young familiar faces—musicians, actors and actresses, artists, writers— appear, but seen in unfamiliar ways: personally, and idiosyncratically interpreted.

Michals, a self-taught photographer, has had a long career photographing for publications, but came to art-world notice in the early 1970s with Sequences, a book of narrative sequences of staged/posed photos that married age-old themes—youth, love, loss, old age, death, transfiguration—with the spare, cool, minimalist aesthetic of that period. These multi-shot mini-stories might be stills from a movie made conjointly by Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders, preceding by two decades CIndy Sherman’s famous fake-film stills. Influenced by writers as well as artists, including Balthus, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Eakins, René Magritte (whose memorable multi-exposure portraits are on view), and Walt Whitman, Michals, who, born in 1932, and an exact contemporary of Andy Warhol (whose portraits are also included) balked at the limitations and superficiality of ‘pure’ photography. (Warhol famously embraced superficiality.) He defiled the sanctity of the pristine photographic objet-d’art by jotting ironic or even at times elegiac inscriptions about the subjects on the prints in a distinctive spidery, ultra-thin handwriting. Michals: “My writing grew out of my frustration with photography. If I took a picture of you ... it would tell me nothing of you as a person.... Sixty percent of my work is photography and the rest is writing.” Like some other celebrated photographers (e.g., Walker Evans, and Andre Kertesz, who appears in Michals’ homage to Hockney), he ventured beyond photography into painting as well, repurposing old tintypes with geometric motifs in oil paint.

It’s extremely difficult to sum up a six-decade career in a few hundred words, but certain themes are present throughout the portraits, which are, like good portrait paintings. as much about the artist as the subject: a respect for individuality; a recognition that life is transient, yet miraculous; and a delight, sometimes whimsical, sometimes ironic, in the power of the imagination and the ambiguities of reality—hence his interest in creative personalities. Michals writes of his subject, the Romanian absurdist playwright, Eugene Ionesco: “Always hovering over his writing is the melancholy of our essential loneliness, and yet he found ways of illuminating this through a filter of humor and satire.” This might be Michals’ credo as well. He annotates another ‘imaginary’ portrait with these octogenarian words of wisdom:

I’m a miracle. We’re walking, talking miracles. You probably gave to be on your death-bed to realize that you’re a miracle, just when it’s too late. But it’s possible to know now, saints know now. If there’s some way that we could understand that being alive is not simply a matter of consuming things and using deodorants. It really is a matter of being a walking, talking, once-in-a-lifetime offer in the universe that’s never going to happen again.

Some noteworthy ‘straight’ portraits—aside from shots of Meryl Streep and Barbara Streisand at the beginnings of their careers—are Veronica Lake, past her glamor-girl peekaboo era in the 1940s, in middle age, laughing at a hotel restaurant where she once worked, while a customer seated behind her booth reacts in surprise; Toshiro Mifune, standing beneath a leafy park canopy of foliage, caught talking, and rather less superhuman than usual, by Michals’ shutter; and a young Carol Burnett, demonstrating the extreme flexibility of her “Freaky Fingers.” Michals examines the human condition in “Self-Portrait as if I Were Dead,” a double-exposure shot of the artist contemplating, with equanimity, his sheeted body on a morgue gurney; and affecionate portraits of departed friends and lovers. Michals’ enjoyment of mirrors, reflections and the theater of self-presentation shines forth in his five-photo sequence of Tilda Swinton as Sibyl, as she progressively removing the veils covering her face; Swinton again, in the Magrittean “Mr. Backwards Forwards,” as an “androgynous phantom” in a man’s suit who rotates her head 180 degrees to look into a handheld mirror, from which she regards us indirectly, like Perseus avoiding Medusa’s gaze; the film director François Truffaut, standing in a darkened hotel room, silhouetted against the window, reflected in two mirrors on adjacent walls; Ludmila Tcherina, the ‘older’ ballerina, Irina, in the 1948 film classic, The Red Shoes, peering at us from a handheld mirror against a rain-streaked view of Paris; a triple view of the artist Ray Johnson and his storefront reflections; Joseph Cornell, reduced by the camera to a Giacomettian wraith;  the author Joan Didion, her features seen through openings in a sheet of cut paper (or is it a photographed photograph?), with her face framed by the shadow of her head and shoulders. Notable for their good-natured kidding are: two images of Chuck Close, seen up close and from afar; two photos, shot years apart, of Sting resembling a young Danny Kaye, and Danny Kaye, an old Sting; and René and Georgette Magritte, holding hands, the clasp unseen behind a tree trunk. Susan Sontag, also photographed here, as a young prodigy, wrote, “All photographs are memento mori,” but some achieve the status of immortal “privileged moment[s]” that join “the image-world that bids to outlast us all.” Some of them are miracles.

Minnesota Street Projects, San Francisco, 3/17/22.

A potpourri of art from Minnesota Street Projects, San Francisco, 3/17/22. "Superposition" mixed-media geometric abstractions by Carrie Ann Plank at Themes +Projects; conceptual sculpture (“Tuning the Fork”) by Paul Kos at Anglim Trimble; monochrome landscape paintings by James Chronister (“Only Sunrises”) at Eleanor Harwood; cut-paper assemblages (”A Clear Day”) by Zaida Oenema at Municipal Bonds; “Oil and Clay” at Jack Fischer Gallery, pairing abstractions by Jenny Bloomfield with painted, gilded ceramics  by Dennis O’Leary; and “O, the FinalLetter in the [ :] Alphabet, a group show curated by Isabelle Sorrell, at Anglim Trimble (downstairs).

Spiritual Mountains: Wesley Tongson at Berkeley Art Museum

Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson
Berkeley Art Museum
January 12–June 12, 2022

Originality is the tacitly assumed essence and sine qua non of creative art. Young artists in ultra-individualistic America sometimes avoid looking at older artists for fear of being influenced, or contaminated—to their detriment. Artists of the past learned from the masters by copying and assimilating. Arshile Gorky famously copied Picasso (“If he drips, I drip.”), himself an omnivorous eye; and Ben Shahn praised the artists of the past as friendly ghosts, not obstacles or enemies. Creative talent may be inborn but it has to be developed.

Adding to the confusion in recent years was postmodernist theory. The deaths of the author/artist and of individuality itself were widely accepted in academia. Jorge Luis Borges parodied the death of originality in his prescient 1939 pseudo-article considering the literary achievement of “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” ”His admirable ambition,” writes Borges,”was to produce pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” And then there are the complexities of digital art, with appropriation and plagiarism shading into each other.

The Hong Kong painter Wesley Tongson (1957-2012) exemplifies the synthesis of tradition and innovation. In 2018, the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco presented a small but impressive exhibition of his work, entitled The Journey.  Curator Catherine Maudsley noted that Tongson’s ink paintings were grounded in the nature motifs and calligraphy of classical Chinese painting, but enlivened by daring Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes, ink splattering, marbling, resists, decalcomania (pressing painted papers onto the surface and peeling them off), and even brushless painting done with fingers and hands. She cites his training by Gu QIngyao, in Suzhou, and Huang Zhongfang, in Hong Kong, but concludes that “Tongson’s journey was primarily a solitary one.” Hong Kongers will need no introduction to the artist, whose genius was recognized early in his home town, but others seeking background information can look up my review at https://artomity.art/2019/02/04/wesley-tongson.

If I, following Maudsley, saw Tongson’s oeuvre as a spiritual quest through art, it is evident from Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson, at the Berkeley Art Museum, that he had many teachers and mentors guiding his singular, solitary way. The exhibition features eleven magnificent works recently acquired by the museum, interspersed with paintings by like-minded artists, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection or borrowed from private collections. Thus it celebrates Tongson not as an artistic isolato (though his schizophrenia and reticence make his career mysterious), but belonging to a tribe or secret order, its members separated by time and space but united by a shared vision. This show deliberately eschews a chronological sequence, offering instead, through the erudite wall-label commentary by Julia M. White, Senior Curator for Asian Art, a time-traveler’s tour of a group of Chinese painters, all trained in the way of the brush yet guai (eccentric) enough to infuse personality and even dash into a tradition that, by incorporating change, evades formulaic repetition. (In this context I cannot resist mentioning the artist Arnold Chang, whose wonderfully anachronistic (i.e., outside time) ink painting, Thinking of Spring (2010), is included in the show; in 2006 he wrote: “The response I seek from the viewer is that the work has the look and feel of an old master painting. And yet, one can’t point to any specific image or artist that I am copying.” )

But let’s return to Tongson’s pilgrimage. An untitled mountainscape from 2000 from the Mountains of Heaven series is composed of large irregularly shaped blocks of bright color, painted wet into wet, with a wide brush, without any preliminary black-ink drawing framework. Its loose, soft-edged organic forms, which recall the organic abstraction of Frankenthaler, Louis, Olitski and Dzubas, are given specificity by black ink textures suggestive of rocky scarps and forests. How these effects were achieved remains an enigma, but Tongson’s absolute mastery of technique in realizing an inner vision inspired by Taoist/Buddhist lore could not be clearer. Scudding Clouds, Misty Peaks (1996)  is equally virtuosic, with loosely brushed and splashed ink and color suggesting  microscopic realism without any concession to photographic reality. White in the walls label notes that Tongson wished to splash ink to the point of resembling photographs; here he creates, through seemingly random means, a timeless metaphor: the holy mountain rises as a seeming emanation of art materials governed by a shaping intellect. Slope (1990) and Mountain Range (1993) are equally stunning cosmic landscapes. Hung between these four powerhouse works are two landscapes by Zhang Daqian (1889-1993), one of Tongson’s artist heroes, whose melding of free-form techniques and effects were crucial to the younger artist’s path. An untitled work on the opposite wall, a horizonless landscape, from 2001, carries the proliferation of marks achieving a hallucinatory level.

The works of many other artists—too many to enumerate here, with some dating back to the Ming Dynasty and beyond—show that Tongson’s spiritual and artistic quest was guided by his artistic ancestors. The path forged by the self-styled Mountain Daoist (Shandao Daoren) will guide future metaphysical/poetic explorers.